Category: Archive

McDonnell has big plans for Chicago center

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

It didn’t help him much that, either way, he couldn’t lose.
In the end, he opted to accept an offer to become executive director of the Irish-American Heritage Center in Chicago. He had to tell those who run the Irish studies program at New York University that he wouldn’t be taking up their offer of a graduate fellowship.
Bob McNamara, the organization’s president, said of McDonnell, who joined the organization on a temporary basis in March to do business development and marketing work: “In his short time with the Center, Tim has already made a positive impression across the various segments of the Irish community.”
The 28-year-old Rockland County, N.Y., native went to the Chicago area a couple of years ago when he was transferred there by the Nielson Company, which had recruited him when he was still an English major at West Lake University in North Carolina.
Like so many who migrated to that city, he immediately liked that it combined a “smaller town personality” with all of the advantages of a big metropolis.
The economy of scale meant that Irish Chicagoans (many of them from western counties, said McDonnell, particularly Galway and Mayo) could establish a major center there in 1976 and move it to an 86,000 square-foot property at 4626 North Knox Ave. a decade later.
The new executive director would like the non-political, non-dominational and non-profit organization to be a “hub” for other such cultural centers around the nation.
Ibam, a fundraiser featuring 40 writers, 20 musical acts and 20 visual artists, to be held at the center over the Halloween weekend, is certainly a good start in that regard.
McNamara mentioned McDonnell’s “boundless energy” and “an unquestionable passion for all things Irish.”
That passion was nurtured almost 1,000 miles to the east. All of McDonnell’s four grandparents – from Counties Mayo, Limerick, Leitrim and Kildare – immigrated to New York City. His mother spent the first seven years of her life in Kildare before the family settled in Woodside, Queens. His father grew up in the South Bronx.
A hurling teammate of Jim McDonnell’s named Henry Austin introduced him to his niece, Ann, at Gaelic Park. The couple, both teachers, married in 1967. Tim McDonnell remembers a childhood filled with Irish music and culture. “The songs of Phil Coulter, the Wolfe Tones, the Chieftains, the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners were played and sung religiously in the McDonnell household for as long as I can remember,” he said.
He can recall traveling with his parents every year to watch his older brother in bagpiping competitions and his older sister in step-dance competitions at Irish and Scottish festivals along the East Coast and in Canada. His father helped run the Rockland Irish Feis and organize concerts for the Ancient Order of Hibernians (he was an aide to the grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day parade a few years ago).
So when Tim McDonnell’s wife Amber, a law student, encouraged him to pursue postgraduate study, it was perhaps inevitable that he would consider something relating to his Irish identity. After his acceptance at NYU, he gave notice at his job and began to prepare for the next stage of his career. A Google search led him to the Irish-American Heritage Center. “I decided to pay a visit,” he recalled. “I was taken aback by what I saw.”
It has a 658-seat theatre, a library and archives, a museum, the Fifth Province pub, a social center, studios for dance and music lessons, meeting rooms and banquet rooms for parties. Recently volunteer labor donated by carpenters, plumbers, masons and electricians, together with Irish government subsidies, helped convert a former college gymnasium into a ballroom.
“I was just proud to walk into the place,” he said of his first experience of the large building occupying an entire city block.
McDonnell believes that the Irish-American Heritage Center can become something akin to a parish, which families use several times a week rather than randomly throughout the year. That vision prompted him to make the “bitter sweet” phone call to NYU.
“A temporary layover became a real source of passion,” he said.
“I fell in love with it,” McDonnell added, “and the people who work there.”

Larry Kirwan and Black 47, Malachy McCourt and Michael Patrick MacDonald are among those who will perform and read at Irish Books, Art and Music Celebration, or ibam, at the Irish-American Heritage Center in Chicago on Oct. 31-Nov. 1. On Friday night, Oct. 30, McCourt speak at the center’s Gala Awards Dinner.

For more information about Ibam and the center go to http://www.ibamchicago.com and http://www.irish-american.org or call 773-282-7035.

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